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Diamond Mining: 2014 American League Wild Card – Athletics vs Royals

A preview of the American League Wild Card through the lens of advanced metrics, by Felipe Melecio.

AL Wild Card 2014

Insert your favorite cliched war cry here: __________! The 2014 Major League Baseball Playoffs are finally here. Say goodbye to the terrible teams and say hello to the 10 best teams in the majors. No further introduction is needed and we have a lot to cover so let’s grab our shovels and pick axes and dig a little deeper into the playoff match-ups.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD

(10) Oakland Athletics at (7) Kansas City Royals (8:07 PM on TBS)

Throughout most of the year, the Athletics were considered the best team in the league, but as their hitting production dipped as the season wore on, the Athletics’ grip on baseball had vanished and fought for their playoff lives in September. In contrast, the Royals continued to ascend in the standings, scratching and clawing all season long despite having many experts doubting their ability to sustain a winning formula on their march to the postseason. Here’s how the teams match up.

OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION

OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION
Team AVG OBP SLG wOBA BsR BB:K
Athletics 0.244 0.320 0.381 0.311 0.8 0.53
Royals 0.263 0.314 0.376 0.306 10.1 0.39

As can be seen from their Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) both teams ranked as middle-tier offenses, though the Athletics offensive woes have been very well-documented. However, both teams have different philosophies when it comes to scoring runs. The A’s like to work the count and put an emphasis on getting on-base as their patient approach had Oakland finishing in the top 10 in on-base percentage. The Royals, on the other hand, are a free-swinging bunch that rely heavily on high contact rate and speed. Lots and lots of speed. The Royals had three players finish with more than 25 stolen bases this season:

It’s no accident that K.C. finished among the very best in the advanced Base Running metric (BsR). Though the Royals have a worse Walk:Strikeout (BB:K) than their playoff counterparts, they led the league in lowest Strikeout Rate (K%) this year finishing ahead of–that’s right–the Oakland A’s. Despite the different approaches at the plate, theoretically both lineups should be able to limit their strikeouts, but not many fireworks will be going off in this American League Wild Card game. If it’s an old-school approach to baseball that you enjoy, then this is the game for you.

OFFENSIVE BATTED BALLS

The deciding factor on offense might come down to which club can take advantage of batted balls. In terms of Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP–per fangraphs.com “measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit”), the Royals finished just outside the top 10 in that category. Of course, the A’s finished at the bottom and a case can be made that the poor BABIP played a crucial role in their second half meltdown this season.

Kansas City hits a lot of ground balls which helps that team in terms of their BABIP and maximizing their speed. They also are more likely to hit more line drives than Oakland as the A’s live and die by the fly ball, leading the league in Fly Ball Rate (FB%) this season. However, both teams pop up a lot and many of their fly balls don’t always go to the bleachers, which validates the prediction.

PARK FACTOR

Per parkfactors.com, Kauffman Stadium is more of a pitcher-friendly ballpark:

…in the years 2010-2013, Kauffman Stadium produced 101 runs for every 100 runs produced in the average MLB park, and 88 HRs for every 100 homers…

So whatever, slight power advantage the A’s might have had coming into this game should be a non-factor in this game.

ADVANTAGE: ROYALS

DEFENSE

Kansas City has been praised for their handy glove-work all season long, but the Athletics have proven to hold their own on defense and might be able to neutralize the Royals in this department.

Can the Athletics contain the Royals’ run game?

Looking at both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) metrics, the A’s may not have an answer for the Royals’ speed. In terms of pitchers and catchers keeping runners honest, the A’s ranked 29th in Stolen Base Runs Saved (rSB). The Athletics also ranked poorly in double-plays turned. And Oakland is certainly not as formidable in stopping the run in the outfield ever since Yoenis Cespedes was traded to Boston at the deadline. Brandon Moss might have the best arm in the outfield, but it’s nowhere near as good as Cespedes’. At least Oakland has a lefty going on the hill in this game, which might help control the Royals’ speed on the base paths, but not by much.

Who can limit their mistakes on the field?

Both teams have proven to have good range all season long. Unfortunately, getting to every ball means a propensity to commit more errors as both teams finished in the top 10 in that category. However, based on the UZR stat, Error Runs (ErrR), the A’s finished 28th while the Royals finished near the middle at 14th.

ADVANTAGE: ROYALS

JON LESTER VS JAMES SHIELDS

This is why Oakland made that blockbuster trade with Boston. This is the game that GM Billy Beane has been planning for all season (well, not really, but it will have to do for now). Lester has made a name for himself during postseason play, but his opponent also has playoff experience as well. Here’s the tale of the tape:

STARTING PITCHING
SP K% BB% WHIP FIP SIERA BABIP
Lester 24.9% 5.4% 1.10 2.80 3.09 0.299
Shields 19.2% 4.7% 1.18 3.59 3.59 0.294

Both pitchers rely heavily on control and command, but based on the numbers, Lester is clearly the more dominant pitcher while Shields, at age 32, is depending more on guile. Lester’s K% was good enough to be in the top 10 among pitchers with a minimum of 180 innings pitched. Among 66 pitchers that pitched more than 180 innings, Shields’ Field Independent Pitching (FIP-Advanced ERA, basically measures a pitcher’s ability based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed) finished middle of the pack.

BATTED BALLS

Both pitchers don’t give up much in terms of line drives. Both hurlers induce more grounders than fly balls, but they’re not among the best in Ground Ball Rate (GB%). In relation to the rest of the league, both pitchers are not considered fly ball pitchers either. The variance in batted balls would explain their relatively high BABIP. This might not bode well for Lester as the unpredictability of his batted balls might play to the Royals’ bats’ advantage. However, Lester does a better job in forcing pop ups and limiting his home runs off of fly balls, which ultimately might be enough to frustrate an inexperienced Kansas City lineup.

ADVANTAGE: ATHLETICS

BULLPEN

We’ve been impressed with Wade Davis all season long. The transition from starter to reliever has helped the Royals’ bullpen be among the best this year. Davis, among all qualified relievers, finished with an FIP of 1.19, good enough for second best in 2014. Here’s how the team stacks up out of the ‘pen.

RELIEF PITCHING
RP K% BB% WHIP FIP SIERA BABIP
Athletics 21.1% 6.5% 1.08 3.47 3.18 0.261
Royals 23.0% 8.8% 1.24 3.29 3.25 0.293

The Royals’ bullpen might appear to be more dominant, but they are more susceptible to giving up walks, which plays to the strengths of the A’s. On the other hand, the A’s would appear to be more of a finesse team and if last season is any indication, this might prove to be their doom. However, seeing how it’s the Royals, it might not matter if Oakland’s bullpen can strike out the Royals at a high rate because they are such a free-swinging team.

BATTED BALLS

The A’s bullpen ranked second in BABIP which might prove to be pivotal in attempting to stop the Royals’ pesky ways of generating offense. The A’s bullpen also does a good job preventing line drives and induces plenty of pop ups. Other than that, in terms of batted balls, both teams are even-keeled in terms of ground and fly balls. Surprisingly, the Royals’ bullpen are prone to give up plenty of line drives, but that’s offset by the fact that the A’s lineup is a fly ball team.

PLATE DISCIPLINE

In terms of inducing swings, the Athletics have the advantage here and can really take advantage of an impatient Royals’ lineup. A scenario where Oakland’s relievers are toying with Kansas City, late in the game, before giving the ball to their closer, Sean Doolittle, is highly probable. A reminder, however, is that the A’s defense can be shaky at times and pitching to contact gets riskier as the game goes on.

On the flip side, the Royals, though potentially can be dominant, does not really induce a lot of swings. Going up against a patient A’s team, the Royals might find themselves in a pickle. They do a better job at limiting contact, but the Athletics, contrary to popular belief, know what to do when they’re up at the plate.

ADVANTAGE: ATHLETICS

INTANGIBLES

  • The Athletics come into this game with a lot more experience than their opponents. Unfortunately, it has not been the best kind of experience.
  • The A’s are coming in limping into this postseason after getting off to such a hot start. Can they bounce back?
  • The Royals are a young, fresh team who are excited to be making the playoffs, playing their way to their first playoff berth since 1985.
  • Kauffman Stadium should be rockin’ all game long and as it was proven last season in Pittsburgh, a raucous, hostile crowd in a one-game elimination might push the Royals to victory.
  • The Royals are managed by Ned Yost, who gets ridiculed for his questionable strategy.
  • Bob Melvin, Oakland’s manager, has long been heralded as one of the brighter managers in the game today.

CONCLUSION

In an interesting battle between “moneyball” and “traditional” ball, these two teams should prove to put on a good show. If you believe in the new wave of baseball philosophy, i.e. taking pitches, drawing walks, and not sacrificing outs then the Athletics should win this game. If you believe in the “old-school,” small-ball, aggressive running on the base paths, bunting when the situation calls for it, and in the power of momentum, then the Royals should win this ball game.

However, as much as the A’s have struggled, it’s really hard to bet against Jon Lester. The A’s bullpen might do enough to shut the door and frustrate an impatient Royals’ lineup. And who knows? Maybe Oakland can find their groove again on offense and score enough runs to help the team advance to the next round.

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